Federal investigation finds discrimination against Hanford whistleblower

The Department of Labor has tentatively ordered Bechtel National to pay some limited back wages plus $25,000 to a millwright who repeatedly raised safety issues at Hanford before losing his job amidst layoffs in 2011.

Bechtel and the millwright, Walt Ford, have 30 days to object to the finding and request a hearing before an administrative law judge. If neither side files, the ruling becomes final.

Bechtel has not filed an objection with the Department of Labor, but said in a statement Monday that it disagrees with the initial finding.

“We are confident that a full review of the evidence will demonstrate there has been no retaliation,” the Department of Energy contractor said.

The Department of Labor review of the complaint filed by Ford found that his role as a whistleblower in his 35 years at Hanford contributed to the decision to lay him off in November 2011.

Bechtel laid Ford off in the first round of layoffs as all construction work was stopped at the Hanford vitrification plant’s Pretreatment Facility and much of the work was stopped at the plant’s High Level Waste Facility because of technical issues. A significant percentage of the construction work force lost their jobs in a project-wide rolling layoff, Bechtel said.

But evidence showed Ford “was scrutinized and treated more harshly than other employees,” the Department of Labor found. He was ranked 25th out of 26 millwrights the month before he lost his job.

However, the Department of Labor said Bechtel showed that if Ford had not been laid off in November, he would have been laid off by the end of March. Bechtel must pay back wages of about $4,500 a month only from mid November 2011 through March 2012, plus interest, if the ruling becomes final. It also would be required to pay $7,070 in attorney fees.

Bechtel also would not be required to give Ford his job back, as Ford had requested, because he likely would have been laid off in the next few months, according to information from the Department of Labor.

URS, which has been acquired by AECOM, also was named in the complaint. However, the investigation did not find evidence that it discriminated against Ford. AECOM holds the primary subcontract on the vitrification plant project.

Ford, of Pasco, initially filed safety concerns when he was working for former Hanford contractor Fluor Hanford at the K Basin spent fuel project more than a decade ago, according to Department of Labor documents. In 2003 he filed a whistleblower complaint against Fluor.

The next year, he testified in a Department of Labor whistleblower retaliation investigation on behalf of his Fluor supervisor, Richard Cecil, who was laid off after he challenged a 2003 management decision to operate a crane moving radioactive spent fuel despite a warning its brakes might be faulty, according to testimony in the case. The Department of Labor found in favor of Cecil.

Ford was hired by Bechtel National in 2007, and reported several safety violations, including unsafe actions of fellow employees, resulting in harassment, isolation, poor work assignments and false allegations against him, he said in filings with the Department of Labor.

A company investigation cleared him and he was offered a position as the foreman of the Materials Handling Facility, according to documents in the current case. There he was selected to start the facility’s safety council and was elected its chairman by his coworkers. He received positive feedback on his performance and was told his position was secure, according to the legal documents.

New management at the facility in 2011 moved him back to the vitrification plant construction site and his performance was suddenly downgraded when managers learned of his past whistleblower activities, Ford alleged.

After Ford was laid off, he applied for a job with URS, but was not hired.

The Department of Labor investigation found that he was not a finalist for the URS job because he lacked sufficient management or supervisory experience and that the person reviewing his application had no knowledge of his whistleblower activities.

Hanford Challenge assisted Ford with his claim against Bechtel and URS.

“We are looking to the Department of Energy to take concrete steps to address the culture of hostility,” said Nikolas Peterson, Hanford Challenge attorney, in a statement Monday. “We are hopeful that safety will begin to improve as more whistleblowers, like Mr. Ford, receive favorable findings from the Labor Department.”